Prize-winning play ‘Jitney’ rides into Temple
|James William Ijames (left) and Armando Batista star in Temple Theaters’ production of August Wilson’s Jitney, playing at the Randall Theater through March 26.
Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson has been hailed as one of America’s greatest living playwrights. His cycle of 10 plays chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century elevated the everyday lives of urban blacks with their eloquence and simplicity.
Wilson’s uncanny ability to talk about the Big Issues — inner-city urban decline, economic segregation, violence, the lingering inequities of the post-civil rights era — by getting up close and personal with a cluster of fiercely human characters is nowhere more evident than in Jitney, opening Thursday, March 17.
“He’s a brilliant listener; he recognizes and celebrates how human beings speak and work out their emotional issues with language,” said Ozzie Jones, guest director of the Temple Theaters production.
The issues and the tensions of the play are centered in a storefront gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh’s declining Hill District. Jitney derives its name from the unlicensed, independently owned taxis that take people to African-American neighborhoods avoided by licensed cabdrivers.
Becker, the proprietor — and centerpiece of Wilson’s assemblage of characters — is facing the threat of his business being shut down by the city. Add to that the return of his son Booster, who has just served a 20-year prison sentence for murder, and the drivers and other assorted hangers-on for whom all roads lead to Becker’s place: There’s Youngblood, the Vietnam vet fiercely trying to build a life for himself and his girlfriend Rena; Shealy, the numbers runner; the meddlesome Turnbo; Fielding, a former tailor turned alcoholic jitney driver; the soft-spoken Doub; and Philmore, a hotel doorman and sometime jitney passenger.
||“Playing Becker has truly opened me up as an artist. I love his goodness. Even in
the midst of very
unforgiving actions you know that his heart is good.”
James William Ijames
|“As a young wife and mother, I was able to
to Rena’s character.
She is a strong woman who is
transcend the social norms
of her time period.”
||“I think audiences, particularly African Americans, will have an instant connection with the characters and their situations because they’re essentially everyday people dealing with everyday issues.”
They kibbitz, they play checkers, they argue and debate (who’s more beautiful, Lena Horne or Sarah Vaughn?), they laugh and they lament, living their lives with humor and humanity.
“I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us — through profound moments in our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves,” Wilson once said of his Hill District plays.
While Jones readily acknowledges the award-winning playwright’s significance as a black artist, the director is quick to add: “August Wilson is as much an anthropologist as an artist, making sure to preserve this history by excavating the lives of these people. It’s a beautiful and necessary thing.”
Jones’ concept for the set, executed by set designer Anthony Hostetter, consists of a montage of grainy black-and-white photographs from the period, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Roberto Clemente and Mohammed Ali, as well as anonymous street scenes of ordinary folks.
“I wanted it to be like these characters [in the play] are standing on history,” Jones explained.
“They, too, are beautiful and their lives are important, even if they don’t know it.”
Jones, who previously directed Samm-Art Williams’ Home for Temple Theaters, is artistic director of the Walt Whitman Art Center in Camden. An actor, playwright and music producer in his own right, he previously served as associate artistic director of Venture Theater, as assistant to the artistic director at Freedom Theater and has been actively engaged in regional theater projects throughout the country and abroad.
Guest costume designer for Jitney is Millie Hiibel, an M.F.A. alumna of Temple’s graduate theater program. The lighting designer is Shon Causer, a second-year M.F.A. candidate in lighting design.
By Harriet Goodheart
|Jitney opens on Thursday, March 17, at 7 p.m. Evening performances continue at 8 p.m., on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, and Monday through Saturday, March 21–26. Matinee performances at 2 p.m. are scheduled on both Saturdays, March 19 and 26.
Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster at 215-336-2000, at any Ticketmaster outlet or at www.ticketmaster.com. Children, seniors and Temple employees: $12 (with proper ID; cash only). Temple students: free with a current confirmation card. Cash-only advance tickets may be purchased at the Liacouras Center Box Office Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday, 12-5 p.m. For group sales, contact Pat Allen at 215-204-1334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.